The leadership styles and practices of school administrators in the district office have an overall effect on the tone and pace of schools throughout the community. However, positions of leadership in local schools — such as principal, assistant principal and dean — often have the most influence on the atmosphere and achievement in individual buildings. The online Master of Arts (M.A.) in Educational Leadership program from Eastern Michigan University (EMU) prepares educators to succeed in these important school leader roles. Yet, what does it really mean to be a strong school leader?

School Leaders Then

Even in the recent past, the role of the principal was quite different than it is today. A principal’s involvement with classroom activities focused on making sure there were sufficient books and supplies. Principals also ensured the physical needs of the teachers and students were met — consistent heating or air conditioning, sturdy desks and chairs and functioning bathrooms.

The principal’s interaction with students was often a negative experience for both, centering around discipline. However, if a school was large enough to support additional administrators, an assistant principal or dean usually handled student discipline, lunchroom organization and hallway behavior. Yet even in these environments, the principals of old generally had little direct engagement with students. Leading meant directing and managing, with little day-to-day involvement in classroom activities.

School Leaders Now

The role of the school leader changed significantly in the past few years. With the push for school reform and higher student achievement, the use of more complex assessment tools, changing discipline models and the introduction of more rigorous standards, the role of has become more than simple facilities manager, disciplinarian and fiscal watchdog.

School leaders have a significant effect on the environment in which both students and teachers can find academic and personal success. Principals no longer sit at their desks or attend endless meetings about budgets or curriculum selection. Leadership drives the culture and tone of the school, and school leaders have the responsibility of creating a climate of safety, inclusivity and mutual respect. Teachers feel less isolated because they are in regular communication with school leaders and have access to materials and assistance when they need it.

Academic achievement was always a top priority. With the shift in attitude about school leaders’ roles, however, student progress is now as important to school administrators as it is to classroom teachers and support staff. Principals must keep up to date with laws and mandates regarding school facilities and safety as well as academic standards, best practices of teaching and current research in the areas of instruction and student behavior. The modern, effective principal is also a supportive and frequent presence in the classroom, hallways, lunchrooms and other common areas.

In addition, school leaders know that interaction with families and the local community can prove to be a significant factor in the success of the school itself. Reaching out and involving the community in the school culture can raise awareness of the needs of both students and teachers, creating a sense of shared goals.

A Future in Educational Leadership

Educational leaders must also promote leadership in others. Strong principals who recognize strengths and natural abilities in staff members can encourage staff to take on new roles and additional responsibilities that match their interests and talents.

Through cultivating leadership in others, school leaders can empower teachers to improve school culture, instruction and student learning. Principals recognize and nurture talents in teachers, engaging them to help the whole school succeed. In this way, school leaders can also help develop and inspire the next generation of aspiring school principals.

Outside of the classroom, there are also several ways principals can make a difference in the lives and academic success of students, such as family and community engagement. Through integrating improvements in a student’s life and learning experiences in and out of the classroom, principals can have a positive impact on student achievement in the short and long term.

At EMU, prospective school leaders learn from scholar practitioners in the M.A. in Educational Leadership program. This 100% online program prepares educators for the rigors and challenges inherent in educational leadership positions. Making this degree program the next career step into school leadership may be the best decision an educator can make for themselves and their students.

Learn more about the EMU online M.A. in Educational Leadership program.